Oa century ago, GK Chesterton wrote his famous book Orthodoxya defense of simple, historical Christianity as the only compelling way to make sense of the world and its mysteries.
Trevin Wax is firmly in the Chesterton tradition with his new book, The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith. Wax, a Southern Baptist whose wife is originally from Romania, is a far cry from Chesterton’s Anglo-Catholicism. In its own way, however, it attempts to emulate Chesterton’s defense of the truth and goodness of Christian orthodoxy for our times.
Earlier this year, Wax released its own annotated edition of Chesterton’s classic, intended to introduce it to beginners while bringing new ideas to long-time admirers. So it makes sense that Wax would chart his own course, showing why historical Christianity – what CS Lewis called “pure Christianity” and Thomas Oden called “consensual Christianity” – is the furthest thing from a relic of the past.
Dig, don’t dig
The foreword to the book, written by theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, is an elegant reminder that Christian orthodoxy is about realism — what is real and what is true. He is there to help believers stay true to their Lord Jesus Christ. Wax builds on this idea in his first chapter, arguing that defending the Orthodox faith is urgent today because we live in a time of fads, fabrications, and fragmentation.
Orthodoxy is what keeps us rooted in faith, ensuring we don’t forget our first love. The spiritual malaise of our time must be healed, says Wax, with “confidence in the truth and goodness of the Christian faith.” By grounding ourselves in the historical creeds and confessions of the Church – which are themselves summaries of Scripture – we can remain faithful to the triune God. Such a faith, far from being dry and rigidly dogmatic, represents a kind of drama, to use the language popularized by Vanhoozer. As Wax writes, engaging in Orthodoxy does not mean “digging in,” but rather “digging to the foundation of our faith, so that we can stand.”
The objection often arises, of course, that orthodoxy is a suffocating box – that it inhibits our ability to think and reflect for ourselves. As Wax argues, however, it’s more like a map of a land of adventure that one is free to explore. (To use a Doctor Who analogy, Orthodoxy is like the Doctor’s TARDIS, in that it’s much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.)
On the surface, maps and plans may not seem exciting, but their value lies in showing you how to get around, pointing out paths to take and dangers to avoid. Playing in the Fields of Ambiguity may seem like fun for a while, but ultimately you want to reach your destination. You want to find that buried treasure.
Although the certainty of truth can turn into arrogance, orthodox assurance does not require giving up humility. As Wax comments, “The adventure of Orthodoxy compels us to embark on the journey with humility, seeing religion not as something we construct, but as a divine revelation we receive.”
He is careful to illustrate that heresy, not orthodoxy, is ultimately narrow. Orthodoxy recognizes that truth is multifaceted and multidimensional, while heresies are traded in either-or equations. Think of Arianism or Docetism, for example, both of which ask whether Jesus can be fully human and fully divine.
Christians are not religious pluralists, of course. We don’t see Jesus as just one of the many paths to the mountain. But we believe in the exclusive claims of an inclusive Savior—one who is called “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, CSB) but freely extends the gift of salvation to all who call on his name.
If one complaint about Christian orthodoxy is that it shackles the intellect, another is that it places too much emphasis on what you believe over how you live. Wax cautions against this unnecessary dichotomy between actions and beliefs, explaining that our beliefs and our actions go hand in hand. He emphasizes that the bridge between doctrine and application is the person of Jesus. What we believe about him shapes the way we live for him.
This connection is part of what makes Orthodoxy uplifting rather than stifling. “Religion”, as Wax defines this general category, is “a reward for achieving spiritual growth and excellence”. On the other hand, “Christian history does not speak of the ascension of humanity, but of the descent of God. The Son of God comes down from the mountain to save us, because we cannot save ourselves. Wax notes that orthodoxy extends beyond beliefs to include habits, behaviors, pieties, and ethics. We cannot separate it from keeping the commandments of Jesus, which we can only do with God’s empowerment. As Wax writes, “Grace changes. Grace gives power. Graces renew us. This is the challenge of orthodoxy.
Wax provides several examples of how people can drift away from God, perhaps without realizing it. Sometimes it results from just going through the motions. At other times, believers fear being on the wrong side of the culture. Quite often, the culprit is nothing more than simple apathy. This is understandable, given that so many doctrinal disputes can seem arcane and irrelevant. Even so, we distinguish orthodoxy from heresy because the dangers of heresy are real! There are positions to affirm and positions to reject.
Whatever the reasons for the drift, Wax says, we need to develop habits of swimming against the culture tide (at least some of the time) and embracing a more enduring passion for the gospel. Orthodoxy means being anchored to something tested, tried and true, rather than drifting downstream with the currents that overwhelm us.
Moreover, it means resisting the double temptation of accommodation and retreat. The first option seeks to make Christian truth acceptable to the spirit of the times. The problem, as a popular saying goes, is that if you marry the spirit of one era, you will be widowed in the next. The second option, huddle inside a fortress of the saint, is equally reprehensible, as it chooses purity over unity and preservation over mission. Christianity can declare itself against certain things, but always for the good of the world, it seeks to reach with the Good News.
By far the most thought-provoking part of the book is chapter 9, where Wax explains how unchanging yet flexible orthodoxy is. Orthodoxy is not an end in itself, and it is possible that the doctrine, however essential, may become an idol. Addressing our post-Christian times, Wax cautions against adopting a just remnant mentality, where we present ourselves as a faithful few. Even if we hold to “the faith which was passed on to the saints once for all” (Jude 1:3, ESV), we live in the modern world, which calls for a posture of semper reformandaor “always in the process of reforming”.
One theme Wax highlights here—one more Americans might heed—is the importance of seeing ourselves as connected to the global church. “The beating heart of Orthodoxy,” he writes, in a passage worth the price of the book itself, “is not a personal adventure of self-discovery, a collection of our favorite versions of the Christian faith . It is the connection with saints from various cultures and climates, with different languages and traditions, all united by a common confession in Jesus Christ, the King.
A final chapter concerns the future of Orthodoxy. The churches that will survive and thrive in the future, Wax argues, are those that actively connect our doctrine with our sense of wonder. Heresy can deliver short-lived kicks, but only orthodoxy can promise a lifetime of thrills.
Wax’s book is a timely word of encouragement at a time when, too often, social media and news programs do more to educate Christians than church historical teaching or even the Bible. The temptation is to abandon religion as dull and dogmatic or to exploit Christianity as capital for one’s political beliefs. Wax calls us to put aside the ungodly seductions and idolatries of this age. He writes, “The future of the Church belongs to those who want to climb the mountain, who yearn to be more like Christ, who rely on the Spirit for salvation and sanctification, as we have been remade in image of the one who saved. we. The future of the Church depends on the thrill of orthodoxy.
As an Australian theologian observing American evangelicalism from the outside, I can only think of a few books that I would consider must-read for American churches, but The thrill of orthodoxy is definitely one of them. Wax presents a great case for orthodoxy over politics, orthodoxy against heresy, orthodoxy for our spiritual nourishment, orthodoxy for the benefit of the world, and orthodoxy for the glory of God.
In our time, deconstructing faith is a big sexy trend, and Christian nationalism is making a comeback. As an antidote to these temptations, I hope Wax’s celebration of historical orthodoxy will gain a wide audience. What we need most is not to continue the culture wars over vaccines, critical race theory, etc. These aren’t pastors using their pulpits to audition for Fox News pundit gigs, or exvangelical celebrities complaining on TikTok about Christians who shamelessly treat Christianity as superior to other religions. No, what we need most is to return to genuine worship of Jesus Christ. The American churches will find currents of spiritual renewal only by recovering the gospel and its incarnation in the orthodox faith of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.
Michael F. Bird is Academic Dean and Lecturer in New Testament Studies at Ridley College, Melbourne. He is the author of Religious Liberty in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government.
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